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We need to talk about mental health at work—full stop

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all the tasks you have to complete, your jam-packed calendar or a looming deadline that you can’t seem to start—or that feeling like you can’t possibly do it all?

Who hasn’t, right? 

Behind the scenes

Last updated

22 Mar 2022
Why Mental Health At Work Is Still Underdiscussed And What To Do About It

But if you’re finding that worry, fatigue or exhaustion are taking up large chunks of your day for extended periods of time, you’re not alone. 

Let me tell you a story . . . 

Not that long ago, I was seriously struggling with overwhelm. 

It was the middle of 2020—and we were in the midst of the pandemic. Like many people, I was caught up in all the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next?  I wasn’t able to be in the moment and was far out in the sea of the unknown—and it was terrifying. 

All my energy was focused on the health, wealth and well-being of those around me: my family, my team, and the entire company. 

I wasn’t on the list of people to care for, though. My sleeping patterns were consistently disrupted, and my physical and mental health plummeted. I even suffered from a painful bout of shingles and just couldn’t recharge my batteries no matter what I did. 

I was experiencing burnout. The only way out was to stop and dedicate my time to restoring my health.I had to take three months off from work, or I wouldn’t recover. 

So why am I sharing all of this? 

That time off allowed me to restore and recharge myself so I could be a better leader—one that can support my teammates with whatever they’re going through. 

I want all of our colleagues at Hotjar and leaders in other companies to not shy away from talking about both the low and high points of life—and to reduce the stigma of mental health even more. 

Two common reasons that may affect mental health and performance 

You’re passionate about what you do and the career path you’ve chosen. Until slowly, you realize you’re not excited about starting the workday anymore. 

You could have burnout, which creeps up slowly and can cause your physical and mental health to suffer. Pre-pandemic, we could think of this as a result of long-term job stress in your job, or if your role is physically or emotionally draining. 

Mental Health UK notes these as some common signs of burnout:

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time

  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated

  • Feeling detached/alone in the world

  • Having a cynical/negative outlook

  • Self-doubt

  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done

  • Feeling overwhelmed

But there are some updates as to why our mental health may be suffering since the pandemic was announced.McKinsey noted that the burnout from ‘what happens’ post-pandemic stems from a lack of communication and transparency within an organization—feeling like you’re the only one worrying, or like you can’t possibly do it all.

Sort of like talking into an echo chamber at times. Individuals anxious about the future due to lack of organizational communication were 3x more likely to burnout.

Then there’s languishing, which the New York Times describes as “the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing.”  The symptoms here are a bit trickier to pinpoint, but languishing can rob you of motivation and focus—affecting your work performance. 

I was definitely on the burnout part of the scale here and reached the point where I had to stop everything. If any of these symptoms resonate with you, have a chat with your doctor or with someone you trust on your team. 

How we think about mental health at Hotjar

At Hotjar, mental health is health. 

We believe that eating well, exercising, and taking care of your mental health all fall into the same bucket: health. 

We offer a well-being budget anyone can use for any aspect of their health. Many of our colleagues use this budget for therapy, meditation apps, exercise subscriptions, or anything that makes them feel good. There’s no distinction between taking sick time for mental or physical health, either.

But wellness benefits only work if you build a culture from the ground up that supports mental health and leading by example. 

That’s why I’ve shared about my experience with burnout with our team before —so my story won’t be a surprise to anyone on the team, and so others know how normal it is to talk about it.  Therapy appointment or dentist appointment: there’s no difference to us. No shame, no stigma. 

In fact, we actively encourage team members to talk about their own mental health—in team meetings or our company-wide mental health channel on Slack.  And to take time off as a preventative measure and to get some relief—before their mental or physical health is suffering too greatly.

We actually just introduced an exception leave policy for those occasions when a team member needs a longer period of paid leave than one of our standard leaves provides. 

This leave covers exceptional or extraordinary reasons such as an extended illness or injury, a specific wellness situation (physical, mental, emotional, etc.), natural disasters, and more. 

To make mental health a priority for your team, you have to think holistically about the work environment and any cultural pressures within your organization. This starts with your leadership team.

How does Hotjar create a safe space for mental health topics? 

At Hotjar, we make it a point to have candid conversations about mental health, whether that’s struggling with burnout, depression, anxiety, or other experiences. 

Speaking openly about mental health topics at work isn’t a cultural norm. Really, it’s only been in the last decade that the veil has been lifting, but there’s still a long way to go. 

Making sure we’ve built a safe space to discuss mental health at work is something I’m personally passionate about—because I don’t want anyone on the team to suffer in silence. 

But I’m not perfect, and I’ve never pretended to be the kind of founder that always knows what they’re doing. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I’m sure I’ll make more. With that said, here are two ways I’ve done it to keep our team health at the forefront of everything we do. 

1. Build a purpose-driven company

The most important anchor to encourage a positive company culture is focusing on purpose. If your employees don’t feel a sense of purpose, they’ll feel stuck on a hamster wheel—and ultimately burn out or leave. 

In fact, two-thirds of U.S. employees surveyed by McKinsey said COVID-19 caused them to reflect more deeply on their purpose and their work. When employees feel more purpose at work, they’re much more likely to report happier outcomes across their entire life.

I think a lot of us take for granted what it means to have purpose at work. You can have all the perks in the world, but if your employees aren’t waking up excited on a Monday morning to log on, then they’re not going to feel connected or seen.

That starts with the origins of the business. We started Hotjar with the intention to build a business that we want to work at. 

Plenty of entrepreneurs focus on planning for successful exits, acquisitions, or a certain financial milestone—and that’s all well and good, but that wasn’t how we wanted to run a business. For us, it was about building a great place to work.

That starts with people. We intentionally created a culture, even as we’ve grown to 250 employees, that puts the team first. Because if you can’t take care of your team, then you can’t possibly take care of your customers.

2. Trust from day zero

One of our guiding principles at Hotjar is the idea of “trust at day zero.” This means that from the first day an employee is hired, we trust that they have the well-being of the company and team in mind. We immediately give them furniture for their home office, a credit card, and access to systems and code.

Our team is 100% distributed and always has been, which requires a strong foundation of trust. They can choose where they live, how they work, and how to manage their own time. For example, we let our employees book their own leave. I’ve never understood why so many companies add extra layers of operational friction by forcing people to ask for approval. 

This quote from Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, also encapsulates this nicely: 

“If we turn toward someone with our difficult feelings—sadness, anger, hurt—and they tune in to our feelings without judgment or defensiveness, it helps us to move through that feeling, like a tunnel, to the light at the end. This definition of trust can be boiled down to one question: ‘Are you there for me?’” - Emily Nagoski, 

Part of building trust off the bat is listening to employee feedback. While there are plenty of positives working remotely, we asked our team what they didn’t like and found that many felt a little more lonely, especially during the pandemic. It’s something that Buffer also found in their State of Remote Work Report, with 16% citing loneliness and 27% citing an inability to unplug as their biggest complaints about working remotely.

Pre-pandemic, we introduced a yearly “working together” budget of €2000 to match our existing personal holiday budget, so that employees could travel and visit one another. Those visits are meant to be meaningful—you have to publicly post that you were meeting up, spend at least three days in one of your hometowns, and then do a reflection afterwards—and our team loved them.

During the pandemic, of course, we haven’t been traveling as often. So we redirected this budget instead for digital meeting opportunities, like coming together to watch a live performer, take an online class, or buy lunches and chat together so that employees can stay connected.

I think the greatest challenges, though, are when teammates have personal situations that impact their ability to work. It happens to all of us because your mental health is a part of life. It could be struggling with an illness in the family, caretaking for young children at home, or finding yourself in a dark patch. 

We have unlimited unpaid leave, in addition to our set paid leave, to make people feel like they can actually take time off and that they won’t be penalized for doing so. There’s no distinction if you need to take time off for mental health or physical health when you take a sick day. 

Mental health = health

We still have work to do. Talking about mental health is not the most comfortable topic for a lot of us, myself included. 

As our team grows, we’re working on building a training program for managers and leaders that helps support teams and make them feel more comfortable talking about it, so we can all work better together.

The essence of what makes a business a business is really the collection of brains in the business. It's the collective of brains that drives improvements, expansion, and innovation.It's not assets or infrastructure. These are just tools for the people.

So it’s wild to me that in 2022, more companies don’t talk about the primary system that drives their business—the mental health of their team.

Yet many companies still aren’t actively discussing burnout and other mental health challenges or offering benefits like wellness stipends or mental health days.

It remains a crucial part of employee satisfaction and health, but almost 60% of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their struggles or mental health in general.

Where do you see the future of mental health in the workplace going? How are you promoting mental health at work?

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